Written by: David Ross
Directed by: Lucky McKee
Starring: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, and Bruce Campbell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“We have a certain way of doing things here. And you better find out what that way is or there will be serious consequences."
I feel like Lucky McKee should be a much bigger name than he is; sure, he’s known in the hardcore horror circles, mostly thanks to May, which was easily one of the best horror films of the previous decade. His name didn’t really properly re-merge until last year when his latest film, The Woman, made a huge splash at Sundance. In the interim, he was rightfully allowed to partake in the Masters of Horror series and directed a couple of other flicks (and starred in one, Roman, directed by his May star, Angela Bettis). The Woods is one of those films tucked between May and The Woman, and it almost mirrors McKee’s own career in the sense that it’s a fine film deserving of a larger audience.
It’s a period piece, set back in the 60s at a girl’s reform school; that’s where Heather (Agnes Bruckner) has been sent by her slightly tyrannical mother (Emma Campbell) after she tries to burn the house down. Upon arrival, she befriends a quirky girl (Lauren Birkell) and draws the ire of a clique of catty girls headed by Samantha (Rachel Nichols). They clash, much to the dismay of the shady head mistress (Patricia Clarkson), who might be hording secrets concerning the school’s sordid history of witchcraft in the nearby woods.
Some films are what they are, and are rather unpretentious about it. The Woods is one of those movies--nothing about it particularly soars, and it’s an obvious riff on Suspiria’s setting and The Evil Dead’s woodsy terror (complete with killer trees!); still, it’s a tight little yarn that mostly succeeds despite its rather mechanical plot. Most of the stuff here is standard fare, such as the Heathers-style conflicts that results in a couple of physical blows being traded and the campfire/ghost story elements that climax in a twist you’ll see coming before any overtly spooky things start going down (three witches once emerged from the woods to take over the school--there are now three head-mistresses, so you do the math). The Woods hardly boasts the most innovative of scripts, but screenwriter David Ross is keen enough to keep the stuff coming at a quick clip; this sometimes results in some convenient contrivances (such as Samantha’s out-of-nowhere face turn when she’s been at Heather’s throat the entire film), but the plot moves rather well.
The Woods feels like it should be a slow burn--it’s not exactly a quick one, but it does spend more time with its characters than most of these movies do. If Suspiria is a reference point, then I’d go so far as to say that it does a much better job in developing its main girl than Argento ever did (though, to be fair, he was interested solely in presenting a purely stylistic nightmare). Bruckner is clearly the star of this ensemble; she’s another name I thought would have blown up after she did a brief tour through horror early on, but it’s never quite happened for whatever reason. She commands the screen with a smoldering intensity; instead of being prone to shrieking outbursts, she resorts to biting sarcasm, and she radiates intelligence on the whole--you never get the sense that The Woods is going to degenerate into being another movie with a stupid girl wandering around a big haunted house.
Bruckner is matched by some fine talents--again, the script sketches the bit parts a bit broadly, but they’re inhabited by capable performers. Clarkson plays the head-mistress with an alarming sense of reassurance; she’s so comforting that you can tell she’s probably hiding something. The rest of the cast is similarly nicely-pitched into stock characters--Birkell is mousy and quiet as the quirky friend, and Nichols is voraciously bitchy. One wonders how she exactly gets away with blatant bullying (she even brands Heather as “Firecrotch” due to her red hair), but this sort of thing never seems to raise an eyebrow in these types of movies. McKee’s biggest casting coup is Bruce Campbell as Heather’s father. He arrives on the scene rather emasculated and completely without that trademark Ash-swagger; in fact, he seems kind of submissive to his wife (a character who borders on unreasonably hateful towards her daughter--she’s perhaps a bit too broad).
But because this is a movie about foreboding, malevolent sprits in the woods, you can bet McKee fully exploits audience expectations--at one point, he even scours a nearby shed in search of weapons he can use to help rescue his daughter. This is obvious stunt-casting, but McKee reigns it in enough to keep it from becoming Campbell’s show--in fact, his role is rather inversed from his days in that cabin. Still, the last act is undeniably fun, as this is where McKee finally unleashes the stuff he’s subtly built to. I especially enjoyed the setup to all of this; though the plot is rather brisk, McKee gets just enough mileage out of his locations--the school is big, cavernous building that’s habitable but feels borderline decrepit, and the surrounding woods are eerily captured with natural lighting. There’s a particularly effective scene early on when Heather wanders through them and finds herself surrounded by subtle whispers swirling throughout. Other small, creepy moments--such as piles of leaves replacing girls’ places in their bed as they begin to disappear--are dotted throughout, leading up to the wild crescendo involving malevolent trees and axes to the face.
It’s those small moments that show McKee gets it, though; The Woods is hardly a masterwork in the same vein as May, but it’s proof that he can put together a good little creepshow that’s driven by both characters and horror hysterics. The photography and editing are crisp, making this a lean experience that’s perhaps just a few developed subtexts away from being truly special. Had it more fully explored the period setting (which is only relevant in the presence of a couple of oldies tunes), it could have funneled some interesting themes--I always feel like something more should be said whenever you’re dealing almost exclusively with girls in a pre-feminist setting, but The Woods isn’t interested in that. It just happens to be a solid horror story involving girls, and that’s okay too. For whatever reason, this went direct-to-video; it’s not like this is a particularly difficult film that wouldn’t play well to mainstream audiences, and it’s no doubt better than more than few films that did secure theatrical releases in 2006. Sony’s disc is a no-frills affair, giving you a choice between both widescreen and full-screen transfers; you’ll want to go with the former, obviously, which does the film’s scope photography justice. The 5.1 track is an even better compliment, as it throws sounds all around your room in both the quiet and loud scenes. When I saw The Woods back when it was first released, I thought for sure we’d look back on it as this cool moment before a lot of these people hit the big time; as it stands, though, Nichols is the only one to emerge. Maybe the likes of McKee and Bruckner are fine with that, and I can’t begrudge them for it; at any rate, The Woods remains a cool modern horror gem that’s worth taking a trip into. Buy it!
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